Chai: How The Opium Trade Introduced India To Tea
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Most Indian tea time rituals involve savouring a cup of piping hot masala chai – allowing the flavours of each sip to permeate one’s soul. But have you ever wondered how this beverage, so integral to Indian culture, made its way to our shores? A combination of British colonialism and an active trade-off on opium with China was really where it all began. While both, British and Chinese cultures have been known to consume tea as part of their culture, the Chinese had been consuming tea for over 2,000 years whereas tea was only discovered by the English in the 17th century.

While the latter set-up their colonies across India, British rulers were in talks with the Chinese, eager to learn the art of tea making. However, when the Chinese refused citing reasons that involved commerce, the colonisers used Bengal as their base to ship opium to China – where the intoxicant was widely appreciated. Since opium was cultivated in plenty at the base, from where it was exported to China, the Brits waged a war against them – their win forcing the Chinese to open up trade avenues for tea and opium.

When it was declared that 24% of the total Chinese population were addicted to opium in 1906, it went on to prove how passionate the English were about their cuppa! Procuring tea saplings, the English decided to cultivate the crop on their own accord, knowing little how labour intensive the process was. Although India’s history with tea was limited to the Assamese Singhpo tribe consuming the beverage as medicine, the colonial rulers created contracts for men and women labourers to toil for limited periods of time.

Despite the inhumane working conditions and cheap labour that was simply a replacement for slavery that was banned in England in 1833, the British marketed their cultivation of the tea plant on a huge scale – making India one of the largest suppliers of tea in the world. Since the flavours of the tea grown on Indian soil were more imposing than the Chinese cha, milk and sugar was added to the beverage while brewing, in order to make it palatable. Some early versions of the chai also had flavours from crushed ginger, cinnamon and pepper, all thanks to the booming spice trade.

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The chai that we know today isn’t just symbolic of a tradition that is rooted in a piece of dark history, but also goes on to show how a foreign tradition was embraced wholeheartedly – evolving into its own identity over the years. While you sip and ponder with your cup of tea, it is rather intriguing how external influences shaped the way food and drink is perceived in India today.